[Paleopsych] NYT: Hold the Limo: The Prom's Canceled as Decadent

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Mon Dec 12 01:36:38 UTC 2005

Hold the Limo: The Prom's Canceled as Decadent

[More of the reaction to the excesses of the age. I most definitely did not 
go to any prom at Fountain Valley School, an all-male (at the time)
boarding school outside Colorado Springs. I don't even remember if their was 
a prom, though Sarah recalls Dick going to one five years later. I thought 
girls were as silly as my mother and sister and did not want to have 
anything to do with them. (My opinions about my mother and sister have 
certainly changed since then! And I think they have, too.)

[I took Nancy Johnson to a dance in the eighth grade and took another at 
Fountain Valley School in the ninth grade, but Steve Reierstad took her away 
from me and left me alone for the rest of the evening. (He was later 
expelled from the school, I think for smoking, but he must really have 
wanted to get kicked out. He was a bully. When a roommate, Vance Thompson, 
left (voluntarily), I had a room all to myself. For reasons I don't recall, 
if I were to take a roommate (Ned Fetcher), Steve's rooming arrangements 
could be changed so he could have a roommate more to his liking. He promised 
to stop bullying if I agreed. I did, but the bullying resumed shortly 
thereafter. A lesson learned!

[Ned asked me whether I believed in God. Yes. Why? I couldn't answer and so 
dropped the belief until I could come up with some good reasons. He started 
a lifelong fascination with religion, but 51 years later, I still haven't 
come up with good reasons to believe in a Stone Age creator. I met up with 
him at my 25th reunion but haven't been able to reestablish contact with him 
by e-mail. Maybe I gave up too many other beliefs, some of which he 

[Anyhow, my parents housed some visiting foreign students for a couple of 
nights, in the Summer of 1961. I had to take the girl to a dance. My friend, 
Roy Dent, was also there. My activity for the evening was to drink a Coke 
and talk to Roy about the fourth dimension. No dancing at all, and the girl 
left to dance with others. She had a good time, too.

[In college, I thought I really ought to be dating girls--UVa's 
undergraduate Arts and Sciences will still all boys--and in my final year 
signed up with Operation Match, one of the first computerized dating 
services. I found a girl closely matched: Episcopalian background, 
physicians as father, same sized city,.... It turned out we have NOTHING in 

[I stayed on at UVa, switching from math to economics in graduate school. I 
twice dated Sally Ann Moyer (Mary Washington College), a staunch Republican 
and Nixonite. Now this was just too much! I could see Nixon over 
what's-his-name but being actually enthusiastic about Nixon? I was willing 
to go for a third date, but she wasn't interested. Then five dates with 
Gladys Swanson, a sweet girl at the same college. She felt warmly about me, 
but our IQ levels were just too far apart. I was falling in love with her 
too, but I got the better of myself before I wound up in a marriage that 
would have been been okay, indeed pleasant, but not much more than that.

[Now to my 13th date. (I missed one somewhere.) Peter Graham, a friend of 
mine at UVa, went to Mary Washington College and asked, "Who would like to 
date a mathematical genius?" One Sarah Banks answered she would, and so 
Peter told me I had a date, not just for an evening, but for an entire "big" 
weekend, from Friday at 6:00 till Sunday about the same time. My date would 
arrive by bus from Fredericksburg to the Rotunda. I had not particularly 
wanted a date, but I went ahead anyhow. I fired off Miss Banks a letter, 
telling me about myself and inviting her to do the same. Here's what 
appeared in my mail, on 1967 April 14, two days before I was actually to 
meet her:

Dear Frank,

   Tho' an exhaustive description is
requested, physical I presume, let me say
only that I probably won't come as a shock,
being in appearance just another Mary
Washington lady, prudish of background and
foul of mind. Please do find enclosed,
however, a piece of said mind: cluttered,
eclectic, and probably repressed, the obvious
result of spending part of my childhood in
English fog, listening to the BBC.
   Despite my gothic tendencies, I'm really
harmless. The impression I give has been
compared to a white rabbit in a daisy field,
an owl in a dusty attic, and a mouse in a
haunted haystack. This is not to imply that I
am either cute or sweet, & certainly not shy.
By life style, I am a hopeless, scatter-
footed dabbler, constantly acquiring new
weaknesses. I will stick my nose into
anything, particularly if I know little or
nothing about it (like economics, likewise
   Let me guess at your artistic....
tendencies? While sleuthing on my own, you
were described to me as "a one-man happening.
*all* the time." Sounds like a man with a
taste for the *High Camp*. And if you
believe, with me & Marshall MacLuhan, that
Today, *Art* is anything is anything you can
get away with, the Bless Pete! we may yet do
well by each other. My ideal weekend is full
of noise, elbow warfare, & good conversation.
   Hope you weren't expecting a letter that
comes to the point. Actually, I wouldn't
dream of giving you fair warning. One helpful
hint: *Never* take me seriously.



[What is this wondrous creature! I read and reread the letter and was it was 
love before the first sight. I told her I'd meet her carrying a copy of 
Mahler's Second Symphony. I just assumed she'd know who Mahler was, though I 
doubt any of my previous dates did! She was carrying a copy of a book on pop 
art. Her first reaction to me and my black-framed glasses was "what has 
Peter gotten me into?". We walked across the Lawn and down to my apartment 
on Brandon Avenue, without thinking that this was in complete violation of 
UVa rules, for which I could be expelled. On the way in, I showed her the 
bumper sticker of my Austin Healey, which read "Bumper Sticker." She 
exclaimed that she didn't need to explain what pop art was to me.

[We talked and talked and talked. I took her to an Escher exhibit at the 
Alderman Library and thence to the stacks, where I delightedly showed her a 
copy of a religious book that featured drawings of the U.S. Presidents and 
which of the Lost Tribes of Israel they came from. We went up and down a 
winding staircase, going down a number of half-stories, back up a smaller 
number, and arriving at the same place! I did eventually figure out what had 
happened but have not, to this day, explained how I can do much the same 
thing in Old Cabell Hall. She spent the night, with some other Mary 
Washington girls, at the house Peter and some other boys had rented. UVa had 
a policy that girls could not enter boys' premises and certainly not spend 
the night there. There were a number of little old ladies who rented out 
rooms for $5 for the night to just such girls. Why Peter's house qualified, 
I don't know. Maybe it didn't, but Mary Washington College apparently did 
not check too closely about this matter.

[At the end of a "big" weekend of talking, I simply informed Miss Banks that 
I'd be seeing her the following weekend, which I did. The following weekend, 
too, and the weekend after that, the weekend after that, until the end of 
the semester. (It took me until the second date to realize I wanted to spend 
the rest of my life with this creature.) Once or twice, she said she had 
gotten too far behind in her work but that I could come visit her but I'd 
have to wait till late in the evening before she was ready. I wound up 
spending the night in a room in a little old lady's house up in 
Fredericksburg myself, there being no girls renting houses where the boys 
could stay.

[I had met her grandmother at her farm near Warrenton. Though intending to 
leave her there, happily, my Healey broke down (it really did, though her 
grandmother was highly suspicious) and I had to spend the night there. We 
discreetly slept in separate rooms. I met her parents in Alexandria also. 
Miss Banks went home but I managed to take the2 1/2 drive every weekend to 
see her during the Summer.

[I drove her out to Colorado Springs to show her off to my parents. Dad 
pronounced her to be one of the finest women he had ever met of any age. The 
next Semester included weekly dates, until at last we got married between 
semesters on 1968 February 2. It was at the grandmother's farm, which had 
been in the family since about 1830 and where a great grandmother and father 
has been married before. The ceremonies were conducted by a Unitarian 
minister, who had allowed me to expunge all references to the supernatural. 
I had verses read, though, from a family Bible, an old one before it got 

1 To every thing there is a
season, and a time to every purpose
under the heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time
to die; a time to plant, and a time
to pluck up that which is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to
heal; a time to break down, and a
time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to
laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to
5 A time to cast away stones,
and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to
refrain from embracing;
6 A time to get, and a time to
lose; a time to keep, and a time to
cast away;
7 A time to rend, and a time to
sew; a time to keep silence, and a
time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to
hate; a time of war, and a time of


[Dad offered to pay for a honeymoon to one of those islands that has no 
bookstores. I said I'd rather just have the friends who came to our wedding 
come visit us in our new apartment. We are still suspended in that
magical moment between the wedding reception and the honeymoon, which has 
yet to take place.

[And we haven't stopped talking.]



    Prom night, that all-American rite of passage that fell out of
    favor during the anti-establishment 1960's and then made a comeback
    in the conservative tilt of the Reagan era, probably always
    inhabited terrain destined to become a battleground in the
    so-called culture wars.

    It is about social manners, class, gender roles; and to a more or
    less open degree, it is about sex.

    That may explain why recent decisions by two Roman Catholic high
    school principals on Long Island to cancel proms for the class of
    2006 - both citing exasperation with what the educators described
    as a decadent "prom culture" - seem to have struck a chord well
    beyond the worlds of Catholics, high schools or Long Island.

    Newspaper editorial writers, social scientists and parents across
    the country linked through Web sites have responded in the past two
    months with what seems like a giant exhalation of relief, as if
    someone had finally said what they had long feared to say.

    "Strike up the orchestra for Brother Kenneth Hoagland, principal of
    Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale, N.Y.," read an Oct.
    23 editorial in The Chicago Tribune. "Not because he has canceled
    the Long Island school's spring prom but because in doing so he
    provoked what should be local discussions nationwide about prom
    night activities and about parents and educators who don't do their

    Underlying the concern seems to be a widespread uncertainty about
    the coming-of-age ritual embodied in the modern prom - the $500 to
    $1,000 spent on dress, limo and parties before and after the actual
    event. It has become not uncommon for parents to sign leases for
    houses, where couples room together, for post-prom weekend events
    or for parents to authorize boat excursions in which under-age
    drinking is not just winked at but expected.

    Trumping it all, of course, is the uncertainty about sex.

    "Common parlance tells us that this is a time to lose one's
    virginity," Brother Hoagland and other administrators of Kellenberg
    High wrote in a letter to parents in March, warning them that the
    prom might be canceled unless parents stopped financing what, in
    effect, the school considered bacchanals. "It is a time of
    heightened sexuality in a culture of anything goes," the letter
    added. "The prom has become a sexual focal point. This is supposed
    to be a dance, not a honeymoon."

    Six months after the initial letter, administrators canceled the
    prom by fiat, citing not just sex and alcohol use, but also what
    they described as materialism run amok.

    A month later, in November, administrators at another Roman
    Catholic school on Long Island, Chaminade High School in Mineola,
    followed suit, explaining that the prom was being canceled because
    its decadence and "showcase of affluence" were "opposed to our
    value system."

    Both principals reported receiving letters of support and requests
    for interviews from all over the world. British, Australian,
    Japanese and Ukrainian newspapers, for instance, ran prominent
    features about the principals' bold stand against American

    Whether those "local discussions nationwide" urged by The Chicago
    Tribune lead to a larger consensus about proms, or remain small
    countercultural acts in what has become a $2.7 billion prom
    industry, some observers viewed them as opening an interesting new
    front in the continuing battle over American values.

    "I think there is a general desire to bring religious values into
    public life, and these actions against the prom seem like signs of
    that," said John Farina, a researcher at Georgetown University who
    studies the intersection of religion and culture. "To some extent,
    it reflects the influence of John Paul II - his willingness to
    confront and resist the dominant culture. As a teacher, I wish more
    educators had that kind of backbone."

    An opposing view was expressed by George M. Kapalka, a professor of
    psychological counseling at Monmouth University in West Long
    Branch, N.J.

    Resisting unacceptable behavior and banning it, he said, represent
    two different spirits in education. "This is just another example
    of the 'just say no' policy, which has failed miserably wherever
    it's been applied," Professor Kapalka said. "It would be better to
    start the conversation with kids about values earlier than to wait
    until senior year and ban the prom."

    Among disappointed students, there was a sense that the timing of
    the ban was arbitrary.

    "It was like a slap in the face," said Shane Abrams, a 17-year-old
    Chaminade senior. "A lot of kids feel like: 'Why us? Why this
    year?' Why didn't they ban the prom last year, or the year before?"

    Countering the charges of prom extravagance, a number of students
    pointed out that the school was spending about $20 million on an
    athletic center, an expense they said was extravagant, also.

    Chaminade's headmaster, the Rev. James Williams, said the decision
    to cancel the senior prom this year was based on an accumulation of
    evidence that "the modern culture of the prom has become toxic and
    beyond remediation."

    He added: "It's part of a larger issue. Why are sweet 16 parties
    becoming more like weddings? Why are otherwise moderate kids
    suddenly pressured to go wild on one night at the end of four years
    of Chaminade education?

    "We are saying we admit that this takes place, and we won't be part
    of it anymore."

    William J. Doherty, a professor of family studies at the University
    of Minnesota and author of "Take Back Your Kids," a study about
    overscheduled children, said in a phone interview that prom
    excesses like those cited by Brother Hoagland and Father Williams
    were typical of what he calls "consumer-driven parenting."

    "We have parents heavily involved in orchestrating their children's
    experience because of this notion that experiences can be
    purchased," Dr. Doherty said. In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, he
    said, he knew of one mother who did not want her daughter to go on
    a senior class trip to Cancun, but would not forbid it. "Her
    comment was 'how sad' it would be if her daughter was the only one
    at her lunch table to miss that experience.

    "It's not that a whole generation of parents is crazy," Dr. Doherty
    said. "It's that there is a subset of parents who are crazy - and
    the rest don't want their kids to miss out."

    Prom night may never replace abortion on the front line of the
    culture wars, but in small increments, the issue of prom night does
    seem to be forcing itself onto the agenda generally described as
    family values.

    Web sites ranging from those of the conservative Concerned Women
    for America to the nonpartisan Berkeley Parents Network, to those
    of various Islamic and Orthodox Jewish organizations, have in
    recent years posted advice to parents about proms, most of it
    highly cautionary.

    In 2002, after several students who attended a junior prom were
    hospitalized for alcohol poisoning, the administrators at Rye High
    School in Westchester County began a dialogue with students and
    parents about how to proceed. One option was to cancel the prom.

    "But we came up with a compromise," said Jim Rooney, the principal.

    Since 2003, Rye students attending the prom have to report to
    school that evening with at least one parent. The parent must sign
    a consent form and leave a phone number where he or she can be
    reached. All students then travel on a coach bus, provided by the
    school, to and from the prom - no limos, no sneaking drinks.

    "The before-prom gathering has become a nice tradition," Mr. Rooney
    said. "The parents and kids gather in our courtyard for pictures,
    and I don't think the kids would give that up for anything, at this

    On the other hand, he admitted, the school has no control over what
    happens after the prom bus drops seniors off back at the school.
    After-prom parties happen. It is almost assumed that students will
    seek memorable experiences according to their own standards.

    "A lot of them go off to these Chelsea bars," Mr. Rooney said. "I
    understand that most of those places are quite porous."

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